An Expat Life: Nicaragua Blues and Ruse

Monday, April 9, 2007

Monday Morning Blues # 4

Well, another stormy Monday.....not quite. It hasn't rained in Managua in all of 2007. Can you imagine?! I thought this place would be overrun with flora and fauna. Instead, half of the year resembles the dust bowl of the Oklahoma plains. At any rate, it's time for another installment of Monday blues...and boy, do I have 'em.

It's a little lonely around here, as we've enjoyed some great company over the last month. So, a little blues is fitting for this quiet Monday morning. What better place to look than Mississippi John Hurt. I have quite a few of his recordings, all of them great. From his original 1928 Okeh recordings, to his warm 1964 Oberlin College performance, you really can't go wrong. So, it's probably fitting that you first check out Complete Studio Recordings (3 cds), a collection from the 1960s folk and blues revival, which saw the 're-discovery' of John Hurt's music.

John Hurt's story is compelling. Born in Teoc, Mississippi in 1893, he learned the guitar at the age of 9, with his mother eventually buying him a guitar for $1.50. He claimed that the sound of his very own guitar was the 'sweetest in the world'. His style is distinct.....a sweet, mellow voice, parroting the man himself, coupled with a relaxed, yet complex syncopated guitar style, contrasting the hard-edged 'delta' sound of fellow Mississippi contemporaries. Hurt sings blues, but he is a hybrid, not unlike Leadbelly, able to weave in and out of the American songbook with ease. At any rate, throughout his early life, he partnered with local musicians, playing dances, parties and so forth, toggling between the rough, hard-edged life of a sharecropper and that of local entertainer. By word of mouth, representatives of the short-lived Okeh label, invited him to record two sessions, one in Memphis and the other in New York City. However, both were considered failures, and the label, as well as Hurt's music, faded into obscurity in the subsequent years of the Great Depression.

That all changed though. In 1963, upon studying the lyrics of 'Avalon', an ode to Hurt's hometown, musicologist and blues enthusiast, Tom Haskins sent a telegram to John. Incredibly, Hurt soon traveled to New York and Washington, playing for responsive crowds. His performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 spawned his rise in popularity and the subsequent release of three albums. From 1963, until his death in 1966, Hurt experienced an amazing transformation from obscure sharecropper to international celebrity, even performing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. One of the more accessible bluesmen of the era, Hurt displayed a grace and good nature that oozes through the music. When I listen to his music, I imagine sitting in a rocking chair with him on a back porch, listening to crickets and sipping sweet tea.

Even in death, Hurt's music lives on. His hometown has dedicated Blues and Gospel Festival in his honor, every July3-4, and guitarists continue to draw inspiration from his alternating bass fingerpicking. For a good introduction to his style of playing, check out Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop. Originally, I was going to write a review of one of his albums, but I just couldn't do it. So, this is my introduction to Hurt's music. Perhaps, at a later date, I will concentrate more on the nuance between the actual recordings.

Until then, I leave you with some footage of Hurt playing on Pete Seeger's 'Rainbow Quest' program. Enjoy.......